Bishop Visitor Logo

Bishop Visitor's Center

Written by Tom Stienstra

From a perch above a boulder-strewn ravine, we peered with binoculars up canyon walls and across a steep jumble of rocks and dirt for endangered Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep.

The arrival of spring in the high country is when Sierra bighorns feast on fresh, water-saturated forage in the front country of the Eastern Sierra Nevada outside Bishop.

A warm, dry breeze pushed out of the north. The scent of sage was in the air. At the mouth of Sawmill Canyon, on a steep mountain face below a towering monolith, we found pockets of greenery amid the rocks. We scanned sections, segment-by-segment, for the silhouette of a Sierra bighorn, attracted there to feed.

“Nothing yet,” I said to Tom Stephenson, our mentor and program leader for the Sierra Nevada Bighorn Sheep Recovery Program of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.

“We know they’re in there,” he said.

Sierra bighorns, he noted, can seem nearly invisible. Their ability to blend against the rock is a defense against predators. When you finally see one, others nearby can suddenly appear as if out of nowhere.

To some, the spike in population also seems to have come out of nowhere. In the late 1990s, about 100 Sierra bighorns were thought to be left on the planet; the latest count was roughly 600. This spring’s count is expected to be lower, Stephenson said, “as a result of heavy snow and mountain lion predation.” But Stephenson said the Sierra bighorn population could sustain its long-term expansion in the next few years and could be relisted from endangered to threatened.

Landmark breakthroughs could help assure that:

Domestic sheep threat: In March, the Mono County Board of Supervisors voted 3-1 to reject a grazing lease for domestic sheep near the range of the Sierra bighorn. That is critical because domestic sheep remain the biggest long-term obstacle to recovery, Stephenson said. In the 1850s, when early pioneers arrived to California, thousands of Sierra bighorns roamed the high country, Stephenson said. The pioneers brought herds of domestic sheep, which infected the bighorns with disease, killing them.

Mountain lion threat: For several years, the Mountain Lion Foundation has softened its stance toward the DFW killing lions in favor of protecting endangered Sierra bighorns. Without pushback, the DFW has identified and killed 24 lions that were specifically targeting bighorns in threatened herds. “When there were thousands of Sierra bighorns, the size of the herd could handle occasional predation,” Stephenson said. “When you have a few hundred animals of a species left in the world, every individual becomes important.”

End of a severe winter: In the desolation of the Eastern Sierra, the arrival of spring means more water-filled plants are available, which can lead to better health of ewes and higher survival rates of lambs. “We believe we have turned the tide for the recovery of Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep,” said Ginnie Chadwick, a scientist who volunteers with the Sierra Nevada Bighorn Sheep Foundation.

The best place to find and see Sierra bighorn is out of the town of Bishop, about an hour south of Mono Lake. From San Francisco, Sacramento or anywhere else west of the Sierra, it can be a mind-bending drive.

The range of the Sierra bighorn includes some of the most foreboding, steep and desolate high country in America.

Over the years, I’ve spotted and stalked Sierra bighorn in several areas. In the Eastern Sierra, I’ve had the best luck up Pine Creek Canyon, the canyons just above the floor of Round Valley, Sawmill Canyon and Taboose Canyon. Another good spot, east of Bishop, is up Silver Creek Canyon on the flank of White Mountain, for a subspecies, the desert — or Nelson — bighorn. For that trip, which includes a creek crossing, a four-wheel drive vehicle with high clearance is required.

A new herd was transplanted in 2015 in the Cathedral Range of Yosemite National Park. It takes a combination of backpacking, trekking and rock climbing to get close. Jen Joynt of Berkeley, who won the DFW’s first-place award for best wildlife photo of the year in 2016, said she made the attempt last fall, but was unable to get a photo.

FILE--This is an undated photo of bighorn sheep in the Sierra Nevada mountains near Mt. Baxter, Calif. The animals are on the brink of being eliminated from the Sierra. As of last summer, only about 150 bighorns were left in the entire range. (AP Photo/John D. Wehausen) Photo: JOHN D WEHAUSEN / </p> <p><em>Associated Press / AP
Photo: JOHN D WEHAUSEN / Associated Press

This is an undated photo of bighorn sheep in the Sierra Nevada mountains near Mt. Baxter, Calif. The animals are on the brink of being eliminated from the Sierra.

The best strategy is to go now, as spring arrives in the high country, where vegetation is sprouting in mountain crevices and bushes and small trees are budding and inching out new growth. Sierra bighorn guru John Wehausen, who like Stephenson and Chadwick has a doctoral degree, told me that he measured the physical advancement of spring and that it moves up 60 feet per day in elevation in the Eastern Sierra.

When you arrive, head to the foot of the canyons, find a perch and scan the slopes of the canyons with binoculars. Start by searching for vegetation, even if it appears to be sparse ground-level browse. Do not sweep back and forth at random. Instead pick a small section (as pilots learn when they scan for other aircraft) and home in on that section for your search. When confident there are no Sierra bighorn in that section, move to the next.

On our trip, Liz Siemion, a DFW scientific aide, located a Sierra bighorn sheep on the mountain slope above the far side of Sawmill Creek Ravine, near the opening of Sawmill Canyon.

“You see that one bright, flat rock, about the size of a car, facing us?” she asked. “There’s one just to the right of it, nibbling on a bush.”

We zeroed in. At first, it looked like a big bunch of nothing. Then there was subtle movement and, as if emerging out of the rock, we saw the outline of a Sierra bighorn that was camouflaged against the gray rock.

For a closer look, I switched to a spotting scope, and zoomed in. In the confined field of view, another bighorn suddenly appeared — and then another. In minutes, we went from staring at rocks to verified sightings of 10 Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep. In time, the scientists counted 21. The ambitious few can draw within 300 yards, stalk from behind rocks, and free-climb to parallel vantage points for photos. It takes a 300mm to 500mm lens for a photo, said Joynt, and rock-climbing skills to get there.

Most people have never seen a Sierra bighorn, Stephenson said, and the animal’s status and location makes this a world-class wildlife adventure. There was even a time 25 years ago when it was suggested that the last Sierra bighorns be captured and put in zoo-like captive breeding facilities to keep the species alive.

Out in the High Sierra, many of this year’s lambs will be born this month. With increased vegetation from the arrival of spring, there is hope for higher survival rates.

One of the greatest wildlife recovery stories in California history is now at hand.

Tom Stienstra is the outdoors writer for The Chronicle. His outdoors report can be heard at 7:35 a.m., 9:35 a.m. and 12:35 p.m. Saturdays on KCBS (740 and 106.9). Email: Twitter: @StienstraTom

If you want to go

What: Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep

Status: Listed as endangered with roughly 600 remaining in the world. Could be relisted to threatened if present population expansion trends are sustained.

Eastern Sierra, west of Highway 395: Pine Creek Canyon, canyons just above the floor of Round Valley, Sawmill Canyon, Taboose Canyon, for Sierra bighorns.

White Mountains, east of Highway 395: Silver Creek Canyon (four-wheel drive, creek crossing required), for desert bighorns.

Sierra bighorn info: Sierra Nevada Bighorn Sheep Foundation, http://sierrabighorn.org; Department of Fish and Wildlife, www.dfg.ca.gov/snbs.

Lodging, supplies: Bishop, Inyo County; Bishop Chamber of Commerce, (888) 395-3952; http://bishopchamberofcommerce.com.

Distances to Bishop: 40 miles from Mammoth Lakes, 64 miles from Lee Vining/Mono Lake (east of Yosemite/Tioga Pass entrance when open in summer), 171 miles from Carson City, 279 miles from Sacramento, 345 miles from Concord, 364 miles from San Francisco.

Coronavirus Special Message

Check out the Digital Bishop Visitor Guide!

Archived Stories

Tell us:

Follow Us on Instagram

Join Us on Facebook!

Comments Box SVG iconsUsed for the like, share, comment, and reaction icons

2 days ago

What's your favorite season in the Eastern Sierra?

Beautiful photo by @robert_lachman from October 12, 2019
#keepbishopsafe
... See MoreSee Less

Whats your favorite season in the Eastern Sierra? 

Beautiful photo by @robert_lachman from October 12, 2019
#keepbishopsafe

Comment on Facebook

All seasons but fall especially! Been going every October for the last 9 years... Also always stop at Mahogany Smoked Meats before going home.

Fall when leaves change and late summer when tubing in cut off’s by day with jeans and flannel by the fire at night

I was raised on the Eastern side of the Sierras. When I was young it was Summers. When I got a little older it was Spring for the opening of trout season. Now at 73 it's Fall...😊

I go every year! 2nd or 3rd week of October! Beautiful scenery and weather!

I have to say mid to late fall. Although mid spring is awesome as well. ✌️

Fall is the best...but the other 3 run a close 2nd!

We from Bishop

Fall🍁🍂🎃

Autumn and Winter

Spring

Anything but fire season 😭

Yes! 😅😁

Gorgeous

Fall

Nice One!

Love the fall leave. We try to go every year in October

Fall

In Bishop all of them. Bishop picture love this site 🙂🙂❤❤

So pretty

Beautiful

Fall

Beautiful picture

Fall by far! I love the colors. We try to go every year in October for my husband's birthday.

Fall for sure. Before the snow shuts the roads. And early summer. When it is just a little cooler. 🐈😷

Beautiful!

View more comments

4 days ago

With fires, poor air quality and COVID-19 all currently going on, who needs a little something to look forward to??
How about Wynonna for Labor Day Weekend of 2021!!
... See MoreSee Less

With fires, poor air quality and COVID-19 all currently going on, who needs a little something to look forward to?? 
How about Wynonna for Labor Day Weekend of 2021!!

Comment on Facebook

Lol whatever floats your boat Bishop. With way things are we might be in a middle of some other bs that will shut it down. I’m done hoping and waiting for “better” times to come.

its sept 21??!!

Can’t wait!!

oh next yr ugh

Looks like she needs an enema !

Mary Allegra Nicol

View more comments

1 week ago

Wishing all of the firefighters and emergency support teams a safe weekend. Thank you for all that you are doing!!!

Sending love from Bishop to all who are being affected by the fires. ❤️

This photo by Instagram user @sammyzz17 and is from February of 2018 when we had the Pleasant Valley Reservior Fire. Hoping that he and his crew are safe!
... See MoreSee Less

Wishing all of the firefighters and emergency support teams a safe weekend. Thank you for all that you are doing!!! 

Sending love from Bishop to all who are being affected by the fires. ❤️

This photo by Instagram user @sammyzz17 and is from February of 2018 when we had the Pleasant Valley Reservior Fire. Hoping that he and his crew are safe!

Comment on Facebook

🙏God Bless you all. I have been praying for rain to help put all the fires out and is in the forecast for some areas yeh!

God Bless all of you amazing men and women fighting these horrible fires. Stay safe!🙏❤️👩‍🚒👩‍🚒👍

Thanks guys!! Hope you all stay safe and return home to your families soon!!! Bless you all❤️

Wonderful pic.of these brave Firefighters! Prayers for their safety! 🙏🏻💕🙏🏻

Thank you to ALL FF's and Incident Command crews, Strike Teams busting butt out there. Love & prayers for All Your Safety from Santa Rosa 💜😷🐈

🙏 to all the first responders and thank you for your hard work.

Thank you Bishop firefighters for all of your extremely hard work!

A big Thank You To All Our Firefighters God Bless You And Your Families Stay Safe

Sending love and prayers from the Florida Panhandle. Be Safe! God Bless you and yours!

Thank you for your service. and God Bless You All .

God be with you all. Thank fort doing what you do

What a commitment! Thank you! Your work can never be repaid!!!

God bless you boys! Please stay safe!

Thank you God bless and stay safe

God Bless you all🙏☮️

Thank you all for what you do for us everyday 💗

Stay safe 🚒😊👍🏼

Amen

Ty

👊👍🤙😎🙏

Thanks to all the firefighters out in California, Oregon & Washington who work tirelessly everyday ❗️❗️. You are true heroes❗️

This is a spectacular photo, a real prizewinner! ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Thanks never were more than a few brave people

View more comments

1 week ago

To any of our Inyo County residents....Please take a minute, if you haven’t yet, to sign up for the Inyo County emergency alerting system, CodeRED. This will ensure that if there is a local emergency such as an evacuation notice or missing child report that you will be notified. Stay safe and stay informed!
Click on this link to sign up:
public.coderedweb.com/CNE/en-US/DAD807D480BF

📷 by John Paul DeRousseau
... See MoreSee Less

To any of our Inyo County residents....

Comment on Facebook

Jack Lila McKinney just making sure your signed up ❤️

View more comments

Load more